I’ve always felt sort of uneasy about the way linear algebra is presented: you start off doing all this stuff that makes complete sense, and works over arbitrary fields, and then suddenly you’re doing something with all these complex conjugates and conjugate transposes and real symmetric matrices and so forth and nothing makes sense any more. So I’m going to try to say something about that here.

Everything in the theory of inner products is based on three properties that look simple enough at first glance, but appear more and more bizarre as you consider them more deeply:

- The real numbers are an ordered field.
- The real numbers aren’t algebraically closed, but their algebraic closure (the complex numbers) forms a degree-2 extension.
- The norm of a nonzero complex number is a
*positive*real number.

(By the way, what do we mean by the *norm* here? Well, it’s probably exactly what you think, namely

.

But the norm is something more general: if we have a finite Galois extension , then we can define a function by

Since consists of the identity and complex conjugation, we recover

.)

The fact that for is specific to $latex \mathbb{C}/\mathbb{R}$; for instance, if is some squarefree positive integer, then we have

Anyway, here’s why this is all pretty weird:

- For almost any other field, the algebraic closure is an infinite-dimensional extension, so we have no hope of getting a norm map like this. In fact, if we have a field whose algebraic closure is a finite-dimensional extension, then is a
*real closed field*, meaning that it looks very much like the real numbers, and moreover . (This is the*Artin-Schreier theorem*.) - In particular, if is an ordered field then for .
- So, there seem to be two completely separate kinds of non-algebraically closed fields: those that behave exactly like this (such as the real algebraic numbers, reals, and the field of real Puiseux series), and those that behave nothing like this but much like one another (such as the rational numbers, number fields in general, positive characteristic fields, etc.).

The fact that we have (1) an ordered field R (2) whose algebraic closure C is a finite-degree extension such that (3) for nonzero allows us to extend the theory of linear algebra (over both R and C!) in some strange new directions.